October 01, 2016

Planning for an Eventful Year

Greg Murphy
Billings, Montana
Council Chair

Another year for the Council begins with the Council’s retreat and first meeting this month. Among the duties of the chair is to plan the year with the approval of the Council.  It looks to be an eventful year.

Elsewhere in this publication Barry Currier, our managing director, perceptively observes that our Standards and Rules of Procedures were built for a different time. The basic structure was conceived many years ago. As with form insurance policies and loan documents, many additions and amendments have been made to the Standards and Rules as issues have arisen and needs were perceived. The new Standards Review Committee, which combines the work and function of the old Standards Review and Data Policy and Collection committees has its hands full merging the operations of the previous committees and dealing with the proposals already on the table and the usual tasks of the two former committees.Therefore, with the approval of the Council, I intend to appoint a new committee to think about what the Standards and Rules would look like if one were to start from scratch. It may well be that we reduce the length and complexity of the Standards and still fulfill the basic mission of helping to assure quality legal education in this country that gives reasonable assurance that students who invest large sums of money are admitted to the profession upon graduation.

Speaking of admission upon graduation, the Council will be considering a recommendation from Standards Review to amend Standard 316, the “bar passage standard,” to bring clarity and enforceability. There is no question a consensus has developed that the existing Standard is problematical. Some have voiced concern that the new proposed Standard—that a school must demonstrate that at least 75% of its graduates are admitted to a bar within two years of graduation—represents a significant change.  In truth, 75% does not. When I served on the Accreditation Committee back in the first half of the last decade the practice was to require a school to report to the committee what it was doing to bring itself into compliance with the Standards when a school’s first-time bar passage rate fell below 75%. And, the existing Standard 316 contains 75% first-time bar passage as a safe harbor. There are those who have, and will, make credible arguments that 75% is too low, particularly if the measuring period for compliance is two years. This is a normative judgment the Council will make. The high cost of education and the assumption of largely nondischargeable debt by large numbers of law students will be key factors affecting that judgment.

I also intend to ask the Council to consider a major restructuring of the accrediting bodies, the Accreditation Committee, the Council, and the Appeals Panel. Having participated in and observed the accreditation project for several years, I am struck by how long it takes for applications to be processed, reviews of schools to take place, and decisions to be made. I am convinced we can achieve better efficiencies, achieve substantial savings, and still provide a careful and thoughtful process.  

We receive on a regular basis large amounts of data from schools, data that often drives accreditation decisions, but our technology for managing that data is woefully out-of-date.  Investment in a better system is needed. With better data management the staff and the decision makers will be better equipped to focus attention and energy where they ought to be directed.

There are those who say legal education is in crisis. The hand wringing is overwrought. To be sure, the precipitous drop in the application pool, and the lack of a sustained rebound has brought challenges throughout legal education, and there are some schools that appear to be struggling. Yet, there are plenty of signs that schools are moving to adapt to a new environment.  More importantly, we in the United States still enjoy the most robust legal education system in the world, a system that affords unparalleled opportunities to enter an ancient and honored profession. Onward and upward!